As a young litigation associate, I was always a very strong proponent of being physically present in the office. Like many of us, I enjoyed seeing my colleagues each day, meeting with case teams in person, and relying on access to people and resources under one roof to get things done efficiently.
To my surprise, my perspective on this shifted after becoming a mother, because suddenly, each hour struggling in traffic or sitting on an airplane was an hour away from my beloved daughters.
Returning to work after having my first child was an intensely difficult transition; litigation can involve long and unpredictable hours, and traveling, commuting and working late all suddenly added up to time when I was not parenting. But working remotely offered an opportunity to recapture some of that time.
If nothing else, the pandemic has revealed two bright spots for those of us who lawyer by day and parent by night and weekend.
First, none of us is alone in this endeavor. I am now fully aware that so many colleagues, clients, even judges, are in the exact same boat with me. And that boat is buoyant with the compassion and understanding we all bring to our careers.
Second, we have the tools to make lawyering as a parent a lot more manageable. More work can be done remotely, travel isn't as essential as we once thought, and we have found new ways to do work and operate as teams that are both efficient and effective.
We can still connect with our colleagues, and with our clients, through alternate platforms. We can shed commutes and nonessential business trips and still zealously advocate on behalf of our clients.
It's likely that we will go back to our offices relatively soon, but as a parent who loves being around her children, and as a lawyer who cares deeply about her clients, I hope that some of the new ways we've learned to work over this past year persist.
Communication, Connection and Understanding
Prior to the pandemic, most working parents were like Clark Kent, aka Superman — changing out of our hectic morning parenting identities with the start of the workday, working our day jobs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (or 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.), then changing back into parent mode until bedtime, and then shifting once more back into work mode late at night to try to get everything done.
For the most part those transitions were hidden from view — opaque to the people with whom we work. School and day care closings, and quarantine, changed all of that overnight. Suddenly, everything was mixed together like my toddler's finger paintings.
Whereas I had previously been able to hide the stress of bouncing between these compartmentalized worlds, pandemic lockdown instantaneously put it all on display via a computer video camera.
But a silver lining quickly emerged. With my parenting life now in extremely close proximity to my working life, it was much easier to realize that I was not alone. And so seeing a client's son asking for a snack was more of a bonding experience than a nuisance — colleagues and clients alike grew closer in sharing the experiences, and challenges, of working and parenting through the pandemic.
And of course, the number one struggle of working parents everywhere — finding good, dependable, affordable and sufficiently safe child care — moved fully into the spotlight, and that spotlight was shining bright during meetings, in mentoring associates, and in conversations with clients.
Perhaps the most wrenching period of the pandemic for me was late last summer, when my wife and I started grappling with the question of whether and when to send our kids back to day care. The stress of knowing that we were struggling to keep up with work was suddenly compounded by the enormous anxiety and, honestly guilt, of solving that problem by sending our tiny girls outside of our safe quarantined bubble.
As I would lament to my friend and colleague, almost in shock, "there are simply no good choices here" — even as I knew I was lucky and privileged to have any choice in the first place. But again, enter a silver lining.
When I was struggling to make a decision about day care, I attended a meeting of my firm's working parents group, a group I had started after having my first daughter in an effort to give working parents — myself included — a resource for connecting with similarly situated colleagues who could offer advice or at least commiserate over the struggle.
When the pandemic started, this group was truly a lifeline for many of us. And during that meeting late last summer, the group made me realize my decision about day care wasn't some epic unicorn circumstance plaguing me and me alone: Dozens of my colleagues had been or were lying awake at night and turning the same bad choices over and over again in their heads. They offered me nothing but compassion and understanding, exactly what I needed to get through that decision.
That compassion has been on display time and again over the past year.
I have watched colleagues who live alone and colleagues with children, who are pulling their hair out trying to find one minute alone, truly empathize with each other's challenging circumstances.
I have watched clients cut meetings short to accommodate the impossible reduced-hours school schedules facing the attorneys they work with.
I have seen more adorable faces peering around the people I work with and work for than I ever would have had the opportunity to see from my downtown office.
And attitudes have shifted. Many of us have found that topics that we used to worry might detract from our professional dedication and demeanor — talking about our children, parenting struggles or childcare concerns — have actually created a closer bond between us as attorneys, and with our clients.
The feeling that we are all in this together is one that intensified during the pandemic, and I hope that it will continue long after our offices and courthouses open.
More Tools in Our Toolkit
But compassion and understanding alone do not drive change. The pandemic experience itself has been invaluable in actually demonstrating how we can adapt when the assumptions are out the window and the playing field is drastically different.
For over a year, my colleagues and I have effectively represented our domestic and international clients in cases pending across the country, before a variety of different courts and administrative bodies, all from our individual homes.
It is a truly shocking thing to say and hear.
But we have harnessed the power of technology, linked that up with our own creativity and problem-solving skills, and effectively guided our clients through various thorny legal issues, all while respecting lockdown mandates and social distancing protocols.
There is certainly much about lawyering that, given the option, is better done in person. When restrictions are lifted, critical witnesses will be questioned in person, and key hearings and trials will draw attorneys to courthouses.
But there is also a lot of lawyering that can benefit from the ability to work remotely, and that ability may ultimately benefit working parents trying to balance their personal and professional lives by making the best possible use of every last minute.
I was one of the earliest in our litigation group to have to take a remote deposition, and so my team spent several weeks before the deposition identifying an effective platform, training ourselves on the operation of that platform, and reimagining deposition strategy when witness and attorney are separated by thousands of miles and yet only a computer screen.
The depositions I took remotely were largely successful, which I believe is consistent with most of the experiences of my colleagues since then. But the myriad plans and logistical requirements that occur ancillary to a deposition before the pandemic were gone.
Before we went remote, a back-to-back deposition trip would often involve at least four or five days of travel, almost always requiring airplane trips, hotel rooms and meals out. It would also mandate significant time away from family.
In a remote context, while I did spend most of the deposition days and the days preceding those depositions holed up in my home office preparing, at the end of asking the final question of the final witness, I was able to close my laptop, walk out of that office and hug my daughters.
There will always be witnesses for whom in-person questioning will be of paramount importance, but that is not true for every witness and now we do have workable, proven options for accomplishing these tasks in a more efficient, less burdensome and less costly way.
My colleagues and I have conducted a variety of different types of hearings over remote platforms. Again, while it may not be an ideal medium for all court and administrative hearings, I have heard of and experienced myriad benefits.
For example, in European patent opposition proceedings, technical experts may travel long distances to the hearing location to provide testimony, but the patent involved might end up getting revoked before that expert testimony is ever put on. In a remote world, this scenario would not require such significant — and ultimately unused — travel time and cost.
Incorporating virtual hearing options into post-pandemic practice is also consistent with the direction some judges were moving in before the pandemic started.
For example, many litigation discovery dispute hearings were already being conducted by teleconference so as to minimize the time and expense of getting attorneys from around the country into a courtroom to hash out relatively minor discovery issues.
Similarly, before the pandemic, I argued before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board at an oral hearing in an inter partes review where I stood in a hearing room in Washington, D.C., with two of the three empaneled judges in front of me, and one logged on remotely by videoconference.
Ultimately, if judges are equipped and open to this format, we as litigators should be as well.
Perhaps the aspect of lawyering that benefits most from the face-to-face, personal connection of in-person meetings is deal negotiation. Many will say that there is simply no replacement for getting parties to a dispute in a room together to hammer out a resolution. And that may be true in many circumstances.
But I have also been part of high-stakes, complex negotiations that have played out successfully where parties meet in a so-called main room over one platform, while taking advantage of breakout rooms, chat functions and/or text messaging over different platforms to recreate some of the dynamics of a negotiation setting.
For parties and participants spread out over the world, and corporate decision makers with extraordinarily busy schedules, coordinating such meetings virtually sheds the time and expense of extensive travel and, in so doing, can actually speed these negotiations along.
We all miss in-person client events. I don't think anyone can dispute that sharing a meal or a drink with a potential client gives both parties a chance to connect, develop a rapport, foster trust and focus on the potential opportunity at hand.
Virtual platforms are simply not an apples-to-apples substitute. But, as with many aspects of our pandemic lives, creative companies have emerged to capitalize upon opportunities to make the virtual as personal as possible. For example, it is now possible to buy and send a client a drink for an online wine tasting networking event.
Virtual-reality networking platforms are popping up left and right, promising a more lifelike experience than the traditional grid of faces in videoconferences. We can invite clients to virtual conferences, virtual museum tours, even remote concerts, and be home in time to tuck the kids in bed. And while the experience may not be as personal and interactive as the real thing, I have found that attendance tends to be higher given the lower effort required to attend.
The pandemic has challenged us in myriad ways and by this point, many are exhausted by it and want to get back to normal life.
I do share that sentiment, but I also marvel at how we have adapted to our circumstances, how we have caught glimpses of each other's lives and worked to understand and to help one another through extraordinarily difficult circumstances, how we have acquired new skills and honed new strategies for legal advocacy when we do not have the benefit of in-person interactions.
These should not be ephemeral gains. Some of the remote tools at our disposal now have the potential to significantly increase efficiency, shed costs to clients, and streamline processes and save time in a way that makes the practice of law more manageable for working parents. I hope we embrace and sustain this meaningful progress forged out of such a difficult year.
Chelsea Loughran is a shareholder at Wolf Greenfield & Sacks PC.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
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